Will California's New Groundwater Rules Hurt Small-Scale Farms and Farmers of Color? | Civil Eats

Will California’s New Groundwater Rules Hurt Small-Scale Farms and Farmers of Color?

New research found that the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) could favor the largest growers in California and could leave small operations in the dust.

Latina farmer harvests onions.

Update: In July, 2022, the California State Legislature passed a series of bills that include over $43 million in  investment in drought relief for small-scale and historically underserved farmers. “We hope to see swift action in allocating these funds to farmers who need immediate relief,” said Paul Towers, executive director at Community Alliance with Family Farmers.


Annie Main has always known water, or the lack of it, loomed as the greatest threat to Good Humus, her 30-acre farm in rural northern California in an area known as Hungry Hollow. Located west of Sacramento at the base of hills that turn crisp and golden each summer, she and her husband, Jeff, have been growing organic apricots, vegetables, flowers, and herbs for nearly 40 years on land that relies on a well for irrigation. In May 2021, their well started “sucking up air,” as the water table had dropped below the well’s pump. “Without water, we can’t function,” she says. “It’s a vulnerable feeling.”

Main wasn’t totally surprised, though. Over the last 10 years, she’s watched new almond and grape orchards cover thousands of surrounding acres and she has seen hundreds of new wells put in to extract the water needed to quench those crops.

The year Main’s well quit working, nearly 70 percent of water used for agriculture in Yolo County, where Good Humus is located, came out of the ground, with the rest provided by irrigation canals or creeks. That was an unusually high amount. The year before, groundwater supplied less than half. Still, throughout California, in a typical year, about 40 percent of the state’s total water supply comes from groundwater. During a dry year, that number inflates to 60 percent.

“Without water, we can’t function. It’s a vulnerable feeling.”

Decades of unregulated agricultural pumping combined with a warming climate and prolonged droughts have wrung California dry and left a massive water crisis. A landmark law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was passed in 2014 and will be fully implemented over the next 20 years, is supposed to cut groundwater withdrawal and stabilize water levels. If it succeeds at doing that, it could be a win for all who depend on groundwater, in theory.

But a report recently released indicates that as local agencies try to figure out how to achieve that balance, some of the tools being proposed—including fees, limits on pumping, and water trading programs—may harm historically marginalized farmers and small-scale farms.

The report titled “SGMA and Underrepresented Farmers,” by Clean Water Action, Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), CivicWell, University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources, and the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, also questions whether all local agencies charged with devising Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) are adequately including small farmers and farmers of color in the planning process.

“This report highlights that there needs to be equity in (SGMA),” says Ngodoo Atume, a water policy analyst with the advocacy group Clean Water Action. The report analyzed 14 GSPs from basins located on the central coast of California and in the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural powerhouse spanning 8 million acres that has sucked up so much water that land has been sinking and water quality continues to deteriorate.

SGMA is a complicated law and the GSPs are dense, hundreds of pages long, and hard to understand without an expertise in hydrology. The local agencies that create those plans have tried to incorporate farmers in the process, using listservs and posting public notices about meetings. Advisory committees that help guide GSPs reserve spots for growers. But Main says most small farmers are stretched too thin to stay fully plugged into a years-long slate of meetings and presentations. In 2021, CAFF surveyed their members about SGMA and found that of those who responded, only one-third had even heard of it.

“We’re doing all the work on the farm, all the books, all the HR, we are all of that,” Main says, adding that at the meetings she has attended, she has noticed that some of the large farms send property or orchard managers. “They’re not the owners or growers.”

Without small farmers meaningfully engaged in the SGMA process, the report found that their needs are often being neglected. For instance, many of the GSPs reviewed aren’t noting depth of irrigation wells, an oversight for small farms relying on shallow irrigation wells that, especially during drought years, are often among the first to go dry. Also, none of the reviewed GSPs figured out whether monitoring wells—which are used to help gauge how quickly a basin is running dry—were located near those vulnerable shallow irrigation wells, helping to possibly flag a problem before it’s too late.

Roughly 80 percent of farms in California are considered small, meaning their gross income totals anywhere from $1,000 to $350,000. Of those farms, nearly a quarter are farmed by BIPOC, refugee, and immigrant farmers growing a diverse range of crops, from green beans and lemongrass to blueberries and eggplants.

Equality vs. Equity

Annie Main on Good Humus Farm.

Good Humus’s Main knew that her three grown children wanted to take over the farm. But to do so they would need water, even in dry years. She had heard of the SGMA in passing over the last few years, but last summer, rattled by a sudden lack of water and forced to pay a couple thousand dollars to drill her well deeper, she threw herself into learning about the law and the GSP process. She likens her shift in mindset around the SGMA to that of a “mama bear feeling threatened.”

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She learned that where she farms on the western edge of Yolo County is of “special concern” to the local agency devising her GSP, but that there was a lack of knowledge about the specific dynamics of the water table.

Main also learned that one reason small farmers may have fallen through the cracks since the SGMA passed in 2014 was that while the law requires all who depend on groundwater, including domestic well users and cities, to be considered when making plans, all agricultural interests were lumped into a single group as one large, uniform beneficiary. This is the case despite the vast difference between a small, diversified farm and a massive monocrop operation.

“It just basically says that agriculture is a stakeholder,” says Dave Runsten, a senior policy analyst with CAFF. “There’s no explicit instruction for anybody to single out small farms. I think that’s been a problem.”

Some advocates say this lack of recognition runs counter to the Farmer Equity Act of 2017, which calls on the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to ensure the inclusion of farmers of color and others who have historically been marginalized in the development and implementation of agriculture law and regulations. (According to the report, farmers of color tend to earn less money on average and receive 36 percent less in government funding than their white counterparts.) The Farmer Equity Act also states that CDFA should work with other agencies, including those in charge of SGMA, to keep equity a priority.

But Runsten says in agriculture, equality and equity often get confused. “With equality everybody gets the same thing,” he says. “Equity is recognition that some people have been disadvantaged, marginalized, discriminated against, and need [additional] consideration.”

Take water allocations, for instance. Many GSPs are proposing putting a cap on the amount of water that can be removed from basins and tacking on fees for violators. Runsten says that puts large farms at an advantage. They can afford pricey drip irrigation systems that make the most of every last drop. And they can buy water from neighbors or other irrigation districts. A more equitable approach, he says, would work in tiers, for instance giving “everyone enough water to irrigate 50 acres and ratchet down beyond that,” he explains. (Of course, then you’d have to have a mechanism in place to make sure large farms aren’t subdividing land into 50-acre plots.)

“Land fallowing is only really an option for someone with hundreds or thousands of acres.”

Aaron Fukuda, director of the mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency in the Central Valley, says he’s not familiar with the Farmer Equity Act, but his job is already hard enough simply trying to strike a balance between keeping agriculture alive and the region’s aquifers stable. To him, prioritizing one set of farmers over another would feel like playing favorites. “As far as I’m concerned, if I give everybody the same allocation that is equitable,” he says.

He had to do just that earlier this spring. Though Fukuda had estimated water allocations might be necessary sometime in 2025, entering into yet another year of drought, his agency capped groundwater pumping at 2.5 acre feet per acre across his GSA, no exceptions. This marks the first time the mid-Kaweah GSA has enacted pumping restrictions.

Beyond water allocations, Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, the small farms and specialty crops farm advisor at University of California Cooperative Extension, says other tools being proposed to achieve groundwater sustainability also may inadvertently harm small-scale farmers. She says land fallowing—i.e., leaving some land without crops—is only really an option for someone with hundreds or thousands of acres. Someone whose sole income comes from 30 acres? There’s not that flexibility. “You need all 30 acres to make your living,” she says.

Also, she says, the groundwater trading programs being proposed can be executed in a variety of ways—and some are much fairer for small-scale farmers than others. If the trading isn’t anonymous, for instance, growers of one particular crop might agree to only trade with one another to help their industry survive. Or, if small-scale growers aren’t carefully considered, a basin may end up trading a bunch of water away from where they farm, putting their wells at risk of drying up, year after year. Last month, the California Water Commission released a white paper highlighting the importance of including small- and mid-scale farmers when devising groundwater trading programs.

Dahlquist-Willard works with many Southeast Asian farmers in and around Fresno who grow specialty crops, such as lemongrass and bok choy. She estimates that 80 percent of them rent their land. As water becomes more scarce, and pumping limits are enforced, she fears many of these tenant farmers may wind up having their land taken from them as owners decide the price of water is way more valuable than what they earn from leasing it.

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“Imagine a situation where there’s an allocation associated with each parcel of farmland and you can now buy and sell that allocation,” she says. “What is to prevent [a land owner] from deciding to sell the allocation with a piece of rented land instead of continuing to rent it? [Tenant farmers] are the people I’m most worried about.”

‘I’m as Important as a Larger Grower’

Dozens of GSPs have yet to be approved by California’s Department of Water Resources. Many have been deemed incomplete largely due to technical issues and concerns with adequate protection for drinking water wells, but Runsten, with CAFF, says DWR hasn’t cited a lack of consideration for small farms as a reason for not giving full approval. That’s partly because SGMA itself doesn’t include language specifying the needs of small growers or growers of color.

That said, it’s unlikely that legislators will opt to rewrite SGMA. Earlier this spring, a group of 12 state assembly members signed a letter including a $10 million request for SGMA outreach and engagement with those farmers in the state budget. A decision on that funding should come this summer. The state has a nearly $100 billion surplus and Atume, with Clean Water Action, says prioritizing small farmers will help ensure the most vulnerable growers don’t get left behind. “It’s more than an income for them,” she says. ”It’s their family and their life.”

“The fear is that this will not move fast enough—that communities will point fingers and not come together. The fear is that [people will say], ‘We can just bring the water in from someplace else,’ or ‘We can just drill deeper.'”

Since last summer, Annie Main has started organizing other farmers in her area to get involved with SGMA. She sees the water crisis not as an individual farmer problem, but one that spans the entire farming community. Her local groundwater sustainability agency, she says, has expressed gratitude that farmers who for years didn’t know much about SGMA are finally chiming in. Maybe, Main hopes, small farmers in her basin can continue to thrive even as water grows more scarce.

Still, a few nagging worries linger. “The fear is that this will not move fast enough—that communities will point fingers and not come together. The fear is that [people will say], ‘We can just bring the water in from someplace else,’ or ‘We can just drill deeper,’” Main says. Although she’s a small grower, she asserts, “I’m as important as a larger grower.”

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse and a former staff reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, and the spaces where these topics intersect. Read more >

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